Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out two weeks ago, followed by Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night last week. Soon they will be joined by The Three Musketeers and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even Death Note and Akira are emerging from development hell. Besides a fetching male lead, these films have another common denominator: They are all remakes.
It’s weird to see a film in Hollywood these days that is not a sequel, prequel, book adaptation, Judd Apatow comedy or a remake. This causes some people to proclaim Hollywood a cesspit of unoriginal ideas and the death knell to cinematic creativity.
Are remakes proof that Hollywood has lost all imagination or are they an example of the phrase “imitation is the highest form of flattery?”
Despite accusations of Hollywood’s current lack of creativity, remakes are not a new phenomenon. Plenty of movies from the ’40s and ’50s were remakes of earlier films. Even the hallowed Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his own 1934 films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, into the 1956 James Stewart classic beloved by film buffs.
Yet everyone has seen a god-awful remake. 1998’s Psycho had Hitchcock rolling in his grave. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender caused fanboy riots and the 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s The Fog was a figurative slap in the face to the creepy original. Remakes have caused black marks on many résumés. But one should not forget the array of good remakes.
Ocean’s 11, the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scarface and Insomnia are all remakes, but few people even remember the originals. Remakes can be a way to take a story in a new, interesting direction, or to ensure a good story is not forgotten.
Remakes can also be an interesting way to explore a theme. One of Hollywood’s most lauded comedies, 1980’s Airplane!, is actually a remake of 1957’s Zero Hour! starring Dana Mitchell. The difference is that Airplane! is a spoof, while Zero Hour! is a tense thriller.
In Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Snyder further develops a theme George Romero only briefly touched on — the nature of media during a crisis. Romero’s original cult favorite touched on this idea but spent more time parodying society. Today, with perceptions so dictated by media, Snyder’s emphasis is an interesting twist, even though the biker gang of the original film was sorely missed.
As with The Man Who Knew Too Much, remakes can also be a way for creators to perfect their visions. Hitchcock believed his original was too amateurish. Meanwhile, Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay for the fun but cheesy Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, did not think the film properly channeled his genre-hopping story. In 1997 he had the chance to remake the film into a full TV series and created a cult classic.
Meanwhile, though one might wish Americans were more embracing of foreign cinema, sometimes a remake is the chief way America sees a great story. Western epics including 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1964’s Fistful of Dollars are remakes of two Akira Kurosawa films, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. The three directors are all famous in their own right and the argument of which is better is somewhat moot.
Interestingly, placing these Japanese epics in a Western allows Americans to put the stories in a cultural context. Japan even returned the favor when it made Tokyo Godfathers, a kooky anime remade from the 1948 John Wayne western 3 Godfathers, where three hobos replace three outlaws.
Hollywood rarely creates films that are in no way asked for. America is a sentimental country. We treasure our cultural heritage — the guy on St. Patrick’s Day downs Guinness as a tribute to his Irish heritage. We too treasure our pop culture, as seen with remakes like Friday the 13th — even bloodcurdling sentiment is still sentiment.
With remakes, perhaps we should look to Machiavelli, who said, “One must consider the final result.”
Critical acclaim, box office numbers and DVD sales usually indicate a movie’s success or failure. If you create a great remake, you’re a visionary paying tribute. If it flops, you’re an unimaginative washout.
Mimi Honeycutt is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “Cut to Frame” runs Fridays.